WASHINGTON — For the first time, thousands of low-income high-school students in nearly two dozen states will soon be able to get federal grants to take college courses for credit, part of a program the Obama administration plans to begin this summer.
The experimental program allows high school students to apply for federal Pell grant money to pay for college courses. The "dual enrollment" program is designed to help students from lower-income backgrounds.
The Education Department says the administration will invest about $20 million in the 2016-17 school year to help about 10,000 students.
On Monday, the administration announced 44 colleges that are expected to participate. In Illinois, the list included Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois Central College in East Peoria and Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville.
Education Secretary John B. King Jr. says too many students in need aren't getting challenging coursework to help prepare and motivate them beyond high school.
"The courses students take while in high school and the support they get to succeed in those courses are major factors in not only whether students go to college but also in how well they will do when they get there," King said in a call with reporters. "The more rigorous and engaging the classes are, the better."
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The schools had applied for the program after it was announced last October, and can start offering Pell grants to students as early as July. Pell grants are for low-income people and do not have to be repaid.
Most of the institutions selected for the dual enrollment program are community colleges.
In the 2010-11 school year, more than 1.4 million high school students took courses offered by a college or university for credit through dual enrollment programs. With this new experimental program, the administration is aiming to help better prepare students in need for the rigors of college-level work.
According to the department, less than 10 percent of children born in the bottom fourth of household incomes earn a bachelor's degree by age 25, compared to over 50 percent in the top fourth.
The department has the authority to create the pilot program under the experimental sites section of the Higher Education Act of 1965. It gives federal officials flexibility to test the effectiveness of temporary changes to the way federal student aid is distributed.
Usually, "experimental site" programs last for three years. But the department is hoping that this one will last for at least four years, to cover students all through high school.